Monday, 18th July 2016.
Somebody’s mobile begins to sing, and the tour guide’s eyes swivel beyond my middle-aged companions standing in a pool of sunlight, to me.
“I’ll have that,” he says, holding out a freckled hand. “You can reclaim it at the end of your visit.”
A heron in full flight, neck and head stretched out, passes the lounge’s three arched windows, but instead, everyone prefers to stare my way. I look around for my slightly older sister who’d begged me to come here to Drill House to help her with some thesis or other about eccentric English landowners. I could kill her.
“Mine’s at home, charging up,” I lie in protest. “If you don’t believe me, take a look.” I unzip my neat, blue rucksack, where to my horror, Mrs. Tampax makes a sly showing. I always keep her handy, just in case. Someone laughs. A man old enough to be my Granddad. My neck begins to burn.
Time to exit.
It’s her. Jo.
She’s way back down the hall, half-hidden by a potted palm and a black, carved column of monkeys and apes reaching to the ceiling. I’m running towards her as fast as I can on the slippery tiles, away from that officious bully and the hideous oil painting he’d been raving about. A portrait of the late Lord and Lady Fitzburton with Drill House and its strange chimneys, shining white in the distance behind them.
Close-up, Jo looks different from when I last saw her at Whitsun. More glossy, somehow. More filled out. Hard to put my finger on it, but not so the nearest ape’s balls squeezed out from between his back legs. I’m no prude, but the detail of every vein, every crinkly hair that I’m touching, is disgusting.
“You might have told me you’d wandered off,” I say, still angry with her. “I’ve been made to look a right idiot.”
“Sssh.” She grabs my hand as a small, hunched-over woman with an abnormally prominent nose scuttles by, carrying a dust pan and brush. “I’ve something to show you.”
Jo’s fingers are as hot as mine are cold while we run through huge, silent rooms, high ceilings and lingering last breaths of the dead. All this makes me want to find the nearest shopping mall, full of noise and living people.
Meanwhile, the guide’s boring voice has faded to nothing. A glance at my watch shows 2.10 p.m. “I’ve got to get back to the surgery,” I say, catching my breath.
“You said ‘Jaws’ didn’t have any appointments till half three.”
I shouldn’t have let on about my dentist’s slackening timetable. How these days, teeth are the least of everyone’s worries, especially with a check-up and polish costing thirty quid. Why am I always putting myself in a weaker position with her? Feeding her sense of superiority? Josephine Mary Carter, the high-achieving student…
“We’ve at least an hour.” She drops my hand and walks ahead, hips swinging beneath her denim skirt that ends just below her butt. Black tights, Ugg boots, all courtesy of a generous bursary. Lucky cow… I could have gone to uni too but hadn’t dared ask Dad to sub it. He’d struggled enough since Mum died. Jo, however, had no such qualms.
More primates – primates in bronze, this time – contorted on their plinths, some even suspended from the ceiling, while more paintings of various species line the walls. Although the jungle settings are mostly of Equatorial Africa and places I’d never heard of, they’re too familiar. Too clichéd somehow.
Normally, I hate zoos, being too frightened that a trapped animal will suddenly leap over their wire and gobble me up. Yet here, these immortalized baboons and gorillas seem almost tame…
“Who was this Lord Fitzburton?” I call out after Jo, realising that if I’d stumped up three quid, for the Country Heritage’s catalogue, I could have found out for myself. But us dental nurses have been on the Minimum Wage since the year dot. “Some kind of freak?”
“You can look at my book on him later.”
Those I’d walked straight past near the front door, had cost at least a tenner. “I’ve not had time to check it out myself.” She pushes open a pair of heavy wooden double doors marked STAFF ONLY. STRICTLY PRIVATE, where that earlier sunlight is just a memory; where ornate floor tiles eventually give way to concrete. Black concrete in fact, with loose bits on its surface. I don’t want my new, white pumps ruined. They’ve just cost me three days’ pay. Three days of aspirating too many manky mouths, mixing amalgam and being a counsellor all rolled into one. But why should she care? I’m just the kid sister, after all. The one who makes all Dad’s meals and keeps him in clean pants…She turns round to hiss, “Not a sound. We’re getting close.”
“Close to what, for God’s sake?”
“Can’t you smell something?”
Understatement of the year.
Another door. Smaller this time. More plain, made of steel. DANGER! KEEP OUT. Above it, a red light glowing, pulsing as we both pause. Jo turns to me – always the braver one, who marched away from the sixth form into a gap year in Chile and a place at Durham uni, just an hour’s drive away. The few times she honours me and Dad with her presence, always revolve round her.
“I’m not sure,” I say, covering my nose, suddenly aware of a temperature drop. “Anyway, it’s freezing.”
“Chicken,” she says, tossing her long, straight hair off her face.
“No, I’m not. This is all about you again.”
“So? I need a first if I’m to do an MA then a PhD. What’s wrong with a little ambition?” With a determined twist, the flat, steel handle moves in a clockwise direction.
“A little?” I sneer. “Ha. You’d trample over anyone in your way.”
“Please yourself, dental nurse.”
The way she said those last two words makes me want to wrap my hands around her bobbing throat and silence it forever. No luck there. She’s having the last word, as usual.
“I’ve not come here today on a whim, Alison. I want to get to the bottom of Lord Edmund Joseph Fitzburton.”
“Seems like we already have, and why isn’t this particular area on the Drill House plan in the foyer? How weird is that?”
But before I can blink, she’s disappeared behind the closing door.
I’m pushing and pulling at its stupid, slippery disc as a high-pitched wail seems to come from overhead where a small iron grille is set into the polystyrene-tiled ceiling. The alarm’s din is zapping my brain. I’ve got to get out. The double doors are too far away, but there’s a sash window right at the end of the passageway, big enough for me to climb through. Although its lower wooden frame is stiff, I can still shove it upwards enough to stick my head out. And the rest…
That awful smell’s even stronger, rising, it seems from a kind of barn two metres below me. Its roof tiles clogged with old, dry moss. There’s also a cobbled yard surrounded by large, leafy trees. No view at all. Certainly not of the sweeping lawns and gravel driveway Jo had driven along with me next to her, jealous as Hell. I’ve always had to make do with a bike, while she’d got this cool, cream-coloured Mini Cooper with red stripes on its bonnet.
I’m not thinking of my new pumps, nor my fear of heights. Only Jo. My one annoying, less-than-perfect sister. Then come rough, peasant voices shouting behind me, getting louder. Booted feet tramping along the black concrete until one man yells above the others.
“Be warned, Miss Carter! You’re trespassing…”
Which one of us does he mean? And how come he knows our surname?
I’ve never gone for the torn jeans look, but now it’s all mine, plus two grazed knees and my right-hand palm resembling a piece of knife-scored steak. Somehow. I manage to slither down the corner between what I guess is the house and this barn, only to land with my rucksack wrapped around my neck, and my feet encased in a dark, sticky heap mixed in with straw and everything that crawls. Never mind the bloated flies buzzing round my face.
I’m trying to fight them off, to look up at that same window I’d used, but where is it? And my followers? Too late to wonder where they’d gone. Some shifty little creep has just emerged from the barn, hunched over like that woman with the dust pan and brush I saw earlier. Its hooded head glances from left to right, making me duck back out of sight and dig in my rucksack for my mobile.
Jo’s number’s a blank, like all the rest in my address book. Not even a NO SERVICE AVAILABLE message. Perhaps it’s all those trees…
Just then, this loud, plummy voice booms out from inside the barn. A man, definitely. In charge.
“Don’t for God’s sake let her go!” he commands. “And where’s the other one? Sisters are extremely useful. The most consistent of all…”
What the Hell’s he going on about?
“We’ve had enemies here for too long. Hunt her down. If she’s in oestrus, we use her…”
“If not, sire?”
“We wait for the next time.”
“GCSE Biology,” I’m telling myself. “The menstrual cycle of primates.” But what’s that to do with Drill House? And what had he meant about sisters being ‘consistent?’
Decision time. To find Jo or run? I’ve never made the right choices. Perhaps now might be different.
My whole body’s buckling under a sudden, suffocating weight. That smell again,
then a hairy embrace from behind, while a shiny, pink penis moves backwards and forwards against my hip. Whatever has landed on me, flings my rucksack away over the cobblestones, then dismounts. Only then when I see the four legs and short, stumpy tail moving away from me, do I recognise what it is.
Candlelight, heat and a rich, bloody stink, different to the one outside, reminding me of two years ago when I miscarried in the school toilets. A flame is brought close to my face, and behind it another’s, so gross, so vile, my scream won’t come. He’s on his haunches, still at the ready, while his face with its bright blue cheeks and nose ending in violent red nostrils, looks me up and down.
“Later, Mr. Mandrill,” says that same plummy voice. “Later.” Then, from the darkness, steps a tall man with a handlebar moustache, wearing those same clothes I’d seen in that staid, double portrait.
Before I can fight back, he’s locked an iron band around each of my wrists, and gestures to the creature. “Take her over there. The usual place.”
My back’s killing me. Even ‘Jaws’ doesn’t make his patients lie so flat…
“Where’s Jo?” I manage to say. “And my rucksack?”
No reply, only a chorus of grunts and roars coming from the tall cages ranged around the walls of the barn. I can’t quite see who’s in them, but they’re certainly not all primates. Are babies here too? It certainly sounds like it.
I’m thinking of our Dad away in Newcastle flogging car seat covers. Also, of
our dead Mum who must be looking down, powerless as my bottled-up scream leaves my throat.
“Sssh! Silence, please, young lady. Until we have finished with you.” Then Lord Fitzburton brings over a large, new candle and sets it down between my open legs. Only then do I realise my jeans have gone. And my pants… Meanwhile, the Mandrill’s large, padded palm covers my mouth.
At first, comes a tickle down there, before something hard and cold slips inside me, then out again.
“She’s fourteen days into the cycle.” Fitzherbert pauses to check his thermometer again. “Perfect.”
I can only whisper, “perfect for what?”
“Mr. Mandrill to oblige. He’s been very patient. Leucas, please check both her ankle-holds then help him into position.”
That hooded freak I’d spotted earlier does as he’s told. His hood slips from
He’s half-monkey, half-human with a long, flared nose. Just like the little woman who’s joined him.
“At least we can use you now,” she smiles, revealing two overgrown, pointed front teeth. “Your sister will have to wait until she’s given birth. Five months to go, is it sir?”
“Indeed. But worth the wait.”
Jo? Four months pregnant? The slut. But how? Not here, surely?
And then I remember her glowing skin. Her general air of well-being. How she’d known her way around…
That horrible hand moves from my mouth to I can’t tell you where. The weight of a heavy, matted chest and stomach on mine is too much. But how can I shift it? I’d once had a vivid dream where I’d experienced the same weird sensation just before waking. But this is no dream…
Cold leek soup and a slice of rough bread. Half an apple and a cup of hazelnuts. The
same supper for as long as I can remember. Sometimes I think of home and my room at the back of our house overlooking allotments and a small play park, where normal kids take turns on the swings and the slide. All so far away… Fading…
Normal kids… Ha… Sick joke.
Look at mine. No, on second thoughts, please don’t. I shouldn’t have followed my bloody stupid sister. And here she comes, to stand in front of my cage, blown up much bigger than her first time, like some Zeppelin from one of our granddad’s wartime books. Her hair’s been cut off. No lippy, no slap either. Her Uggs covered in monkey crap. For once in my life, I look better than her.
“I know a way out,” she hisses, before I can ask why.
“Oh yeah?” I say. “Been there, done that. Pull the other one.”
“Edmund?” Comes a screechy female voice from further down the barn. “Our Carter sisters are communicating!”
Then all Hell breaks out. Lady Fitzburton’s husband with his helpers, force my enormous sister to the ground. It’s her turn to cry for help now, but what can I do? I’m behind bars in Cage Number 3. Me and Master Mandrill who’s sucking nicely and growing well. I can only watch as for the second time, her pink waters break on to the straw, and the slow hand-clapping starts.
THE DAILY EXPRESS
Thursday 3rd May 2018
A tragic mystery still unsolved.
Grieving widower, Mr. Derek Carter, 53, whose daughters Josephine, 22, and Alison, 20, vanished during a visit to Drill House in County Durham almost two years ago, has spoken publicly of his devastation at the discovery and identification by DNA from their broken bones found beneath the floor of one of the property’s many out-houses. “They were two beautiful girls,” he said, holding back tears. “With so much to live for. Always the best of friends, so full of life and hope for the future. Whoever killed them, deserves to hang. I’ll do it personally if I have to.”
Excavations are ongoing until the remains of other possibly hybrid adult and younger victims have been recovered. Meanwhile, police are interviewing all inhabitants of Goldenby, the local village, and those employed by County Heritage at the Victorian mansion, finally restored in 2014. Its reclusive owners, pioneering anthropologists, Lord and Lady Fitzburton whose particular interest was the Mandrillus sphinx, had emigrated to West Africa in 1863 and were never seen again. So far, no living relatives of this couple have been traced, nor anyone yet charged with any crime.